She was sitting on the step outside the fire exit to our classroom, waiting for her mates to arrive. I could feel my heart beating fast and I felt out of breath like I’d been running. She didn’t look up from her book.
“Do you want to hear a joke?”
“Get your breath back first.” She’d noticed me, but she still didn’t look up.
“It’s about an onion.”
“Go on then.” And she still didn’t look up.
“Well. There’s this onion, a young lad onion. He lives with his family in a big house on the Underchurch Road.”
Now she looked up. “The one you can’t see from the road because it’s got a line of fir trees against the front wall?”
When you’re talking to girls, Bolley says, tell them things they want to hear. “Er…yeah. The one with the fir trees. That one.”
“My aunt lives there. I haven’t seen any onions.” She was staring very hard at the step now, like she was reading her words from off of it.
Just make stuff up if you have to. “It was a long time ago.”
“Like, before we were born?”
“Yeah. Before we were born. Before the war.”
“Which war?” This wasn’t fair. She wouldn’t look at me while I was trying to tell the joke, and she wouldn’t stop looking at me when she asked questions I couldn’t answer.
“The war.” She looked back down at the concrete, pressed her lips together very hard and said nothing. “Anyway, the baby onion…”
“Baby? You said he was a young lad onion.”
Never lose your cool. “Shit, just listen to the joke, will you?” And (would you believe it?) that’s when she gave me the smile. I suppose I must have smiled back because I forgot I was telling the joke. She raised her eyebrows.
“So?…The baby onion?”
“The onion. Yeah. He liked football.” Girls like details. Give them loads of details. “Every afternoon he would rush home and change into his Everton kit.” She was supposed to smile again at this point, say that Everton were her team, but she didn’t. Maybe she was just getting into the story. “He used to go out in the garden and practise his ball skills, juggle it from foot to foot and that, whack it up in the air and bring it down on his foot.” I mimed it for her. “He couldn’t trap it on the back of his neck, though, because…”
“Because onions don’t have necks?”
“Because it’s dead diffic…Yeah, actually he didn’t have much of a neck.” She looked pleased about that.
“Anyway, one day, while he was playing in the rain, he lost control of the ball because his boots were all wet, and it flew out onto the road. So he…”
“Over those tall, tall pine trees?”
“Er…yeah. It was before the war, remember. They were only little then.”
“Like the tiny onion.” And she made that “ahhh” sound that girls make when they see a little baby or a picture of a koala bear or something.
“Mmm. Anyway…he ran out onto the road to get the ball back. Now, because he was always playing football and never watched television, he didn’t know about the Green Cross Code…”
“Probably because onions don’t cross roads.”
“Sometimes they do.” Her crumpled face crumpled even more when I said that. But she was listening carefully now. “Anyway…”
“You keep saying that: ‘anyway’.”
“Yeah. Anyway, the young onion legs it out into the road without looking and WHUM – this ginormous lorry smacks into him and knocks him down. The driver stops and jumps out and runs to the phone box…”
“There was a phone box. Just outside the house. It was red. Anyway…anyways, the ambulance arrives and they put him on a stretcher. He’s unconscience and…”
“Unconscience. Like when you get knocked out.”
“So…they take him to hospital. Then, well, his dad comes home from work…”
“What does he do?”
“Like, what’s his job, you mean? He’s…er…a teacher.”
“Does he teach onions or children?”
“Onions. There’s no way they’d let him teach children.” Sometimes girls can be really stupid.
“I suppose…” She looked a bit sad, like she thought it would be good to have an onion for a teacher. “So what happened then?”
“Him and Young Onion’s mam rush to the hospital but they aren’t allowed to see him because the doctors are doing an operation, so they just sit there and walk up and down, and his mam cries a bit…”
“Onions make me cry, too.” You could tell she wasn’t trying to spoil the joke or to be funny. She just said it because it came into her head.
“Any…So, at three o’clock in the morning the boss doctor comes out of the room and he won’t look at them. The mam onion starts crying again and the dad onion goes all pale, like, and he says to the doctor: ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ And the doctor looks up and says…” Always do a little pause before the punchline to make sure they’re listening.
She looked up at me and put on this kind of posh voice: “He’s not dead, but I’m afraid he’s going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life.” Then she looked back down at her book.
From The Wooden-Legged Elephant, Amazon KDP, 2012